Car crash trends for the poor run in reverse, study shows.
Traffic fatalities in the United States have been plummeting for years, a major victory for regulation (strict drunken-driving laws have helped) and auto innovation (we have safer cars). But that progress obscures a surprising type of inequality: The most disadvantaged are more likely — and have grown more likely over time — to die in car crashes than people who are well off.
New research by Sam Harper, Thomas J. Charters and Erin C. Strumpf, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, finds that improvements in road safety since the 1990s haven’t been evenly shared. The biggest declines in fatalities have occurred among the most educated. As for people 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, fatality rates have increased over time, bucking the national trend.
The underlying issue here is not that a college degree makes you a better driver. Rather, the least educated tend to live with a lot of other conditions that can make getting around more dangerous. They own cars that are older and have lower crash-test ratings. Those with less education are also likely to earn less and to not have the money for fancy safety features such as side air bags, automatic warnings and rear cameras.
The number of trauma centers, the researchers point out, has also declined in poor and rural communities, which could affect the health care that people have access to after a collision. And poor places suffer from other conditions that can make the roads safe. In many cities, poor communities lack crosswalks over major roads. The residents who live there may have less political power to fight for design improvements such as stop signs, sidewalks and speed bumps. As a result, pedestrian fatalities, in particular, are higher in poor communities.
“It’s true that there are big differences in the quality of the residential environments that people have in terms of their risks of accidental death as pedestrians,” Harper says.
The role of behavioral differences is murkier. Some studies show lower seat-belt use among the less-educated, but seat-belt use has also increased faster among that group over time, meaning socioeconomic differences there are narrowing.